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DCMS’s Whittingdale: National Data Strategy enters post-consultation phase

Minister for media and data tells TechUK’s Digital Ethics summit that the long-awaited national data strategy has entered a new, post-consultation phase, and that the UK is set to show international leadership on digital and data in 2021

John Whittingdale, minister of state for media and data at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), told the TechUK Digital Ethics Summit the imminent national data strategy has now entered a post-consultation phase.

The DCMS originally published guidance for the strategy in July 2019 – when Theresa May was still prime minister.

Whittingdale said work is already underway to advance the strategy in the form of the recently announced data quality framework. This was published last week by the Office for National Statistics to bring cohesion and quality to public sector data described as “disorganised” by Ian Diamond, national statistician, and Alex Chisholm, chief operating officer for the Civil Service in a joint statement.

At the Open Data Institute summit in November, Whittingdale depicted the national strategy as a “broad framework” that invites input from companies, organisations and individuals interested in data use to fire up the post-Brexit, post-pandemic British economy. At that time he invited input up to a deadline of 2 December, and said the strategy itself would be published “in due course”. The deadline was extended to today, 9 December, and he told the TechUK Digital Ethics event that DCMS staff will now examine the inputs.

At that time also, he was sanguine about a no-deal Brexit, stating that with respect to the impending end of the transition period:

“As we approach the end of the transition period in just a few weeks’ time, and no longer bound by European law, we want to champion the benefits that data can deliver. The immediate issue is whether we can continue to maintain the recognition of data adequacy with the European Union.

“It is our ambition to achieve an agreement with the EU that the UK remains data adequate, so that there is no impediment to the flow of data. We don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t get data adequacy, but that is obviously something that is controlled by the European Commission, and time is beginning to run short.”

Read more about the National Data Strategy

At today’s event, in response to a question from TechUK deputy CEO Antony Walker regarding opportunities the minister sees for the UK to lead internationally, Whittingdale mentioned the country will have the presidency of the G7 in 2021, and will promote data and digital there. The UK is also part of the “Digital Nations” group that includes Uruguay, Estonia, and Israel, he said, as well as the Global Partnership on AI. Glasgow will also play host to the COP 26 climate change event in November 2021.

He did not, on this occasion, mention the EU.

“The UK has an outstanding reputation. We value civil liberties and human rights, and as the country of Magna Carta, we are seen as a beacon for the protection of individual rights,” he said.

“That is crucial in building trust which is essential if we are to get people to adopt digital technology. And bodies like the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation are doing terrific work, providing guidance and reports which will be applicable not just here but in other countries,” said Whittingdale.

He said that the government is aware of the risks entailed in the use of data and digital, especially in the form of algorithmic bias in AI systems. “We need to acknowledge there are risks, such as human-introduced bias, discriminatory outcomes or indeed unsafe applications. These need to be addressed while supporting innovation and research.”

Whittingdale also pointed up the £13m investment the government is making in degree conversion courses in AI and data science, as announced by Oliver Dowden, DCMS secretary in June 2020.

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